“The reason Fox found it unwieldy — the scabrous humor about the music industry, the unhappy love story and the weirdness of some of the characters — are exactly the reasons why people love it now.”–Gerrit Graham on Phantom of the Paradise (quoted in the New York Times)
PLOT: Swan is the world’s most powerful music producer, who dreams of opening a grandiose concert venue called the Paradise, while Winslow is a composer who has created a rock cantata version of “Faust.” Swan steals Winslow’s work; while seeking revenge, an accident disfigures Winslow’s face and destroys his vocal cords. Now wearing a mask, Winslow takes up residence in the basement of the Paradise and strikes a deal with Swan to rewrite the opera for Phoenix, a female singer whom both men lust after.
Although Brian De Palma became famous for thrillers and action movies like Dressed to Kill, Scarface, The Untouchables, and Mission Impossible, he began his career making subversive underground comedies, and his earliest films for major studios were oddball farces. Phantom of the Paradise marks the apex of De Palma’s comedic phase; his next film would be the horror hit Carrie, following which he would largely abandon his burlesque and experimental impulses.
De Palma was inspired to write a satire on the commercialization of rock music when he heard a Muzak version of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” in an elevator.
Paul Williams, a successful songwriter who had penned hits for The Carpenters, wrote and performed the soundtrack (dubbing in William Finley’s singing voice). Williams was originally cast in the role of Winston, but asked to play Swan instead, and proved a natural for the role.
The movie was a financial flop, but Williams’ score was nominated for an Academy Award.
A bizarre bit of trivia: although Phantom was a box office bomb, for some reason it was immensely popular in Winnipeg, Canada, where it played screens on and off for over a year. (I like to imagine famous weird Winnipegian Guy Maddin, who would have been about 18 at the time, was a repeat customer).
INDELIBLE IMAGE: We’ll go with the assassination of Beef, who is killed in improbable fashion by a neon lightning bolt. To ecstatic applause from the spectacle-hungry audience. Not only is it an unforgettable sight, it’s also the moment when the operatic Phantom solidifies its weird credentials.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s a wadded-up plot of “Phantom of the Opera” and “Faust,” with a bit of “Dorian Gray,” rolled up into a music biz satire ball and sprinkled with a dusting of crazy.
Edgar Wright commentary on the original trailer for Phantom of the Paradise (from Trailers from Hell)
PLOT: Alien juvenile delinquents are exiled to earth, where they scheme to control a “resurrection suit” that can bring a recently deceased rock and roll star back from the dead.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Pitched as a juvenile delinquent rock n’ roll sci-fi musical, The Ghastly Love of Johnny X is, as the tagline claims, “a truly mad concoction.” In fact, if anything it tries a little too hard to live up to that billing. Better jokes and musical numbers might have put it over the top, but as it is this deliberate, overproduced camp doesn’t have the stuff to make it on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies.
COMMENTS: The Ghastly Love of Johnny X sports so many cool hepcat influences—it’s like a mashup of Rocky Horror Picture Show, Teenagers from Outer Space and The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, full of space-age rumbles, rock and roll zombies, and soda jerks taking teenage femme fatales out to the drive-in—that you really pull for it to work. Unfortunately, the flat musical numbers and lame attempts at comedy ultimately lead to nowheresville, man, but you can still catch a few campy kicks on the way. Musicals are a difficult genre to tackle, especially for a first second time feature director, and especially nowadays when the average actor doesn’t double as a song and dance man. Although there are no hummable hits, Ego Plum’s score isn’t bad—it’s just that the choreography and general staging of the sparse musical numbers fails to impress. For example, the first big song, set in a hash-house trailer that turns into an abstract set when the music begins, is almost purely character exposition, setting up Johnny’s gang as a bunch of hooligans, Mr. X as a brooding James Dean type, and his slinky ex-girlfriend as a scorned woman. The session flips back and forth between musical styles, tries to shoehorn in exposition, and forgets to be tuneful. (The incidental music, which is sometimes Morricone-esque with its wordless female vocals, surf guitars and rattlesnake percussion, can be quite impressive, on the other hand). The black and white Barstow set photography is crisp and beautiful (more on that below), and when Johnny X poses with arcs of electricity shooting from his magic gloves it looks flat-out cool—visually, Ghastly Love does hit the right notes. Casting is pleasingly eccentric. Will Keenan is still playing a teenager six years after Tromeo and Juliet—because the film took six years to complete due to financing issues. He isn’t bad, but as the female lead, but previously unknown De Anna Joy Brooks is a pleasant surprise. She’s a little old for her role, but then again there is that six year filming gap, and her character is supposed to be sexually advanced. She’s slinky, breathy, and looks good in a tight black dress, and you can see why a guy would overlook the scent of danger rising off this dame like a fogbank of Chanel No. 5 and try to play her knight in shining armor. Looking like Dick Cavett would if a wicked witch turned him into a bespectacled, withered gnome with a bad goatee—and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible—Paul Williams has fun playing a very strange, sarcastic and kinky talk show host named “Cousin Quilty.” The big casting coup is “The Office”‘s Creed Bratton as a Roy Orbison lookalike rock and roll superstar. Wearing a long black wig in a silly attempt to hide his age, he’s an absurd choice for a teen sex symbol, and to top off the casting joke he spends most of the movie dead. With closets housing flashbacks, zombie rock concerts, and alien bubble-heads popping out of UFOs, Ghastly Love does have a weirdness beyond its genre-mashing premise. Ghastly Love may not be quite the bee’s knees, but it is light and zippy, and if you’re in the mood for a retro juvenile delinquency flick with aliens and Sharks vs. Jets-style musical numbers, you don’t have many choices besides this.
The Ghastly Love of Johnny X probably won’t be remembered for long, but it will be the answer to very obscure trivia questions in the future, because it marks one least and a couple of lasts. For the “least,” some snarky mainstream journalists have picked up on the fact that it only made a ghastly $117 in its one-screen run (opening in Kansas, no less), making it technically the lowest-grossing theatrical release of 2013. As far as “lasts” go, Ghastly features the last on-screen appearance of Kevin (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) McCarthy. This was also the final movie shot on Kodak’s venerable black-and-white Plus-X film stock, which has been discontinued in the digital filmmaking age.
NOTE: After the original review was published, director Paul Bunnel sent these additional comments, which are reprinted with his permission:
JOHNNY X was a real labor of love for me. It was in production for 10 years. I shot some B-roll footage in 2002 and continued to refine the script for another year until I felt it was ready to shoot. In 2004 my wife and I borrowed against our house to begin principal photography (we’re still paying that second mortgage today). I initially thought we could complete the movie for the amount we borrowed, but ran out of money after only 10 days of filming. This created a major dilemma. We had invested over $100K in a partially completed movie. I knocked on every door in Hollywood (and out of Hollywood) to try and get financing, but no luck. The clock was ticking! After a few years the situation became dire. I began to wonder if I would ever find the money to finish the movie, and if I did, would the actors all be available and would they still look the same??? Another few years passed during which I never gave up on my crazy dream of finishing the movie. Pretty much everyone, including the actors, wrote it off. Friends suggested I make a short film from the existing footage or finish it on digital to save money, but I wasn’t about to compromise the high standards I had set for the project. Amazingly, after SIX years (and five nervous breakdowns) — when I was about to throw in the towel — a friend of mine said he would give me the money to finish the movie. It was that simple.
During the six year “hiatus” there were some script changes, which caused me to be locked into certain things while attempting to change (hopefully for the better) other things. Musical numbers were also added during the hiatus to make portions of the script I thought were weak more interesting. If JOHNNY X would have been completed in 2004 it would have been an entirely different movie. But for whatever reason it wasn’t meant to be finished until 2010 with yet another year to do post production (music, visual effects and sound). I wasn’t entirely happy with the film when it was all put together, but I made the best of it.
The only other things I would like to add is that I never set out to make a cult movie, I set out to make a GOOD movie — and that I began making movies way back in 1974 at the age of eleven. It has always been something I have done since that young age. Amazingly I have always shot on film — all 23 of my movies (mostly shorts) but JOHNNY X was the first one shot on 35mm Panavision (aka GhastlyScope). Given its history I like to call it the Citizen Kane of B-Movies.
I appreciate anyone who takes the time to thoroughly review the film. It’s better to have folks talking about it than not. I thought your review was intelligent and well-written. Of course I would have preferred the review to be more favorable, not to make ME look better, but because I really want to make a movie that people like.
At the end of the day it was an amazing experience to see my dream through to completion – and if I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Phantom of the Paradise has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies. The official Certified Weird entry is here.
Brain De Palma, David Lynch, David Cronenberg, and John Waters were among the directors whose films we passionately watched and discussed in that now extinct haven once known as art school. It was De Palma who topped our list, enough that we ranked him as high as, if not higher than, Alfred Hitchcock. There is justification in the criticism that Hitchcock’s films are often cold, mechanical exercises. De Palma was more experimental, and emotionally incinerating in ways that Hitchcock could not be. De Palma is decidedly unbiased when it comes to provocation: Scarface (1983) unintentionally inspired the current trash thug culture, and Casualties of War (1989) still manages to boil the blood of extremist patriots. He has been accused of being a misogynist and a feminist, an innovative bohemian and a plagiarist, a shrewdly manipulative avant-gardist and the quintessential sell-out. Any director this divisive deserves attention.
Unfortunately, one must briefly address the De Palma/Hitchcock comparison primarily because lazy, hack critics have long held De Palma to Hitchcock’s standards. De Palma was too much his own man to simply imitate Hitchcock. Rather, Hitchcock was one of several influences filtered through De Palma’s preexisting sensibilities. Jean-Luc Godard was another, and it is no accident that De Palma has been referred to as an example of American Nouvelle Vague.
Greetings (1968), The Wedding Party (1969), Hi, Mom! (1970), Get To Know Your Rabbit (1972) and the scrappy Sisters (1973) were distinguished early films that reveal De Palma’s eclecticism and underrated sense of humor. De Palma’s horror-comedy-musical Phantom of the Paradise (1974) came out a full year before The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). Despite the fact that the latter came to define cult hit, De Palma’s is the better film; its shrewd satire was not accessible enough for American audience, even of the cult variety. It is the only worthwhile adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s pulp tale “The Phantom of the Opera”, possibly because Paradise recognizes the source as pedestrian. Even the unjustly famous silent version of Phantom of the Opera (1925) is primarily noteworthy for its star’s masochistic makeup, set design and a few choice scenes (such as the masque of the red death ball and the unmasking). Despite these highlights, Rupert Julian’s direction was flat and uninspired, resulting in a dissatisfying whole. The less said about Opera‘s remakes, the better; the story reached its nadir when adapted for the musical stage by Andrew Lloyd Webber (but then, Webber’s treatment of anything could probably be considered its ultimate low point).
De Palma’s Phantom is not content with a sole source: strands from “Frankenstein,” “The Picture of Dorian Grey,” “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” and Psycho are woven into a glittering glam horror extravaganza staging of “Faust.”
The casting of Paul Williams as a gnome-like demonic cherub is delightfully idiosyncratic. De Palma regular William Finley (as the titular Phantom) and 70’s favorite Jessica Harper (as the love interest Phoenix) fill out an equally odd cast. Gerrit Graham, as the glam rocker Beef, virtually steals every scene he is in, revealing a musical magnetism on a par with the likes of David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Tim Curry.
For all the sharp satire and cynicism regarding the pop music world, Phantom of the Paradise has at its center an authentically felt camp sentimentality. On paper, this sounds like yet another postmodern disaster, but De Palma’s innovative approach melds it into a cogent, maniacal, cinematic firework display. The nexus of De Palma’s film is locating the grandeur amongst the pandemonium, making one regret that it was Oliver Stone and not De Palma who eventually helmed The Doors (1991) (which De Palma was originally slated to direct).
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